The foreign news pages read increasingly like some terrible satire on western military decline. Two years ago French and British forces, with the help of the US Navy, managed to help Libyan rebels topple Colonel Gaddafi. This year, the French needed British support to go to war against some tribesmen in Mali. It was a successful operation, but the ‘Timbuktu Freed’ headline rather summed up the extent of European military power today. The French have only two drone aircraft (the Americans have hundreds) and had to drop concrete bombs on Tripoli when they ran low on real ones.

As the foreign policy rhetoric of our media and political leadership grows, the contrast with the resources grows starker. The British government has almost no one with military experience (although George Osborne spent part of his gap year in the now-liberated Sahara). We remain quite good at making grandiose declarations of our willingness to confront evil and make the world a better place. But political leaders are increasingly unwilling to admit a straightforward fact: the most vital foreign challenges of our era are now beyond them. A few tiddlers may be within reach — handy to polish our self-image back home — but nothing of major strategic significance.

The job of stopping Islamist groups in rogue or failed states is a necessary security goal — just as preventing tyrants such as Col Gaddafi from turning their guns on their own populations is a worthwhile humanitarian one. David Cameron’s sentiments are admirable, and he is right to talk about a ‘generational struggle’ against political Islam. But if we think the game of low-level Whac-A-Mole is a way of winning this battle, we are kidding ourselves.

There is much debate about whether the West should intervene in Syria. The figure of 60,000 deaths is often cited (usually without acknowledgment that this reflects casualties on both sides of a civil war). There are good reasons for not intervening: doing so would simply usher in a new phase of conflict. But the main reason is that intervention in Syria is now beyond Nato. No western government could do anything there even if it wanted to, without paying an unsustainable political, financial and military price.

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This leads us to the case of the world’s largest terrorist-sponsoring state: Iran. The former foreign secretary Jack Straw recently wrote in the Daily Telegraph that even if Iran gets a nuclear bomb it wouldn’t be worth having a war. This is — we must remember — a man who as foreign secretary led this country into war on the pretext of disarming a state that had no WMDs. Now he pops up urging zero action against a country hotly seeking to acquire them. The next day’s Telegraph carried news of a secret ‘Plan B’ nuclear weapons site in Iran.

So while western policymakers continue to talk of ‘containment’ of Iran or ‘caution’ over Syria (and tie themselves into knots about whether Britain should intervene), they would do better to admit a basic fact: defence cuts by successive governments now mean that we couldn’t take action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The coalition government made its priorities clear when it decided to shrink the defence budget while increasing the foreign aid budget by almost exactly the same amount.

For some time now, Britain has been incapable of meeting major strategic challenges. We were incapable of occupying Basra, as the citizens of that city found out when the British military allowed the Shi’ite death squads to take control. The valiance of our soldiers in Afghanistan is all the greater given how few of them were given so immense a task.

The idea of America as the world’s policeman, with its vast military spending, is not only out of date, but wildly optimistic. The Obama administration is cutting defence spending almost as quickly as Europe, and is also sending out the clearest possible signals that it seeks a different role in the world. As Freddy Gray argued in this magazine recently, the Hawaiian-born Barack Obama has shifted America’s strategic gaze towards the Pacific. The US now ‘leads from behind’ in operations such as Libya.

Ten years ago, anti-war protests were held across Britain in protest at the action in Iraq. Before that, there were protests against intervention in Yugoslavia. Had the anti-war movement (in its various guises) been heeded over the years, then Saddam Hussein would be the overlord of Kuwait and a terrorised Iraq. Slobodan Milosevic would be master of a Greater Serbia, including an ethnically cleansed Kosovo. Colonel Gaddafi would have massacred rebels in Benghazi, having seen the West rattle its sabre only to run away. And the Taleban would be ruling supreme in Afghanistan, with al-Qa’eda as their guests, plotting several more terrorist attacks.

The British military has, over the decades, been a force for good in the world. The smaller its budget, the less we will be able to confront evil. As Iran keeps reminding us, the world is an increasingly dangerous place. But western leaders must accept that they are, by choice, not able to do much about it.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Defence, Foreign Policy, Iran, Libya, Nuclear proliferation, Nuclear weapons, Politics (UK), Public spending, Syria, US politics